There’s no doubt Belvoir are aware of their responsibility to recognise and stage marginal voices, especially the Indigenous community voice, and probably no other mainstream theatre in Sydney has done this more. This is one of Belvoir’s strengths and it is certainly applauded and appreciated. We, as audience, are all culturally sensitive to the issues being presented, especially those historical in nature, and we tread carefully in our criticism of the authentic voices, even though theatrically they may be flawed.
‘Beautiful One Day’, a joint project between Belvoir, Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Version 1.0, is currently playing upstairs at Belvoir in the capital ‘T’ theatre, if you know what I mean. It incorporates actors, Palm Island community members and academics and the show fluxuates between facts, re-enactments, video testimonies, casual conversations, narration, soundscapes, photo and video recordings and storytelling. The show can be summarised quite simply- it is a research piece about the origins and hardships of the people of Palm Island.
There are some very engaging moments in this show and it rests in the re-enactments, especially that of the death in custody of the uncle of performer Kylie Doomadgee, Mulrunji. This is where the play comes to life. Paul Dwyer and Jane Phegan draw the audience in as they recreate the scene in the police station through the court evidence of the events in question and then later as the community fight back and we ‘see’ and hear the recordings as the police station is burnt down. The use of the chalk outline, the police re-creations, the becoming of real characters suddenly catapults the play into the audience’s attention. The weakness of the show is that it tries to do too much the rest of the time and is in desperate need of editing. ‘Beautiful One Day’ is two hours long but someone should have taken to it with a pair of secateurs, slashed it to an hour and it would have been a much better show.
I think this is the peril of three distinct groups with an investment in the piece. The academic origins and agenda of Version 1.0 means that documentary and fact telling rate high in the expression of the piece. The issues become clouded when the first 50 minutes feels like we are so overburdened with information such as family trees, timelines and connections and the detailed reading of correspondence about a tyre destroyed in the forced removal of Indigenous people. Whilst there is a point to every story and every minute detail, as a theatrical piece, it starts to choke itself with fact.
Rachael Maza with Ilbijerri and Belvoir further complicate the play by using ‘real’ people on stage from the Palm Island community and there are times the play feels like I’m sitting around listening to my old relatives talk about the old days for hours on end as life slowly ebbs away. Now I know that sounds harsh and that statement alone will bring out the haters (haters gotta hate) but what I’m saying is that documentary and verbatim drama can sometimes kill itself with good intentions. We want the authenticity of the voices to be represented but how do we balance that with the reality that this is also a piece of theatre? The last 30 minutes as we sit around the table listening to what we want in the future or what problems are we still encountering was frankly repetitive and pointless in that it went for as long as it did.
The video testimonies were another aspect that had nice moments but went for way too long. Way, way too long. But kudos to sound composer and designer Paul Prestipino and audio visual designer Sean Bacon who really did create the environment for us and I did like the use of the moving platform and stage door to enter and exit with some humour, as designed by Ruby Langton-Batty.
The biggest issue ‘Beautiful One Day’ suffered from goes back to the capital ‘T’ theatre syndrome. If this were playing in a small ‘t’ theatre, intimate and community in style, it would have been received much better. Without editing, this feels like an amateur piece out of place in the big league. There were too many people with their fingers in the pie and the pie could not accommodate all the stakeholders. Not enough meat to go around and the pastry was stretched so thin that no-one was completely fed by this offering.
Let’s contrast this to the show playing downstairs, ‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’, based on the Ruby Langford Ginibi’s book and adapted by Eamon Flack and Leah Purcell. This show is a one woman performance with Leah Purcell, who also directed this show. Although it’s a mono performance, it doesn’t feel like that way because she creates this world so thoroughly for us in her descriptions, emotional connection to the material, her believability and skill. Add to that the lovely use of visuals, paintings by Lorna Munro and lighting by Luiz Pampolha and the musical accompaniment of Nardi Simpson with sound design of Steve Francis, it is a show that is both full and moving.
It took me the first 10 minutes to adjust to the idea that we were going to narrate and chronicle Langford Ginibi’s book via the first person through Purcell and after seeing ‘Beautiful One Day’ the day before, I wasn’t sure I could take another couple of hours of timelines and facts. But Purcell’s delivery is through the heart. She owns this material and we experience these events as she takes us through each moment. There is tension in the anticipation of each life event, humour interspersed in adversity. Purcell is one of the best performers you will ever see tackle any one woman show because she includes the audience in every aspect, engaging us to empathise with each heartbreaking tragedy and laugh at the ridiculousness of life too. Purcell has presence and in this small ‘t’ theatre it fills the intimate space so that audience and actor seem connected as one family.
Even though this show uses the theatrical elements available to it to tell Langford Ginibi’s book, whether they be technical or through the art of storytelling, it never feels contrived and it certainly didn’t feel as long as it was- over two hours. And when Purcell stopped after each section to take a drink as we took in the visuals of the painting she’d just hung or when she got momentarily lost in the script when the noise from the audience leaving the upstairs show interrupted her train of thought (by the way, someone had left the theatre door open), she joked with us and got on with it. The reality is that Purcell wins us over, whether as actor or character or all shades between, we accept all versions of her as person or persona and love her for it.
The art of ‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ is based on the personal aspect of the text. This is Ruby Langford Ginibi’s story and although it is cultural, political, social, historical and often all at once, it is her story and told with honesty and simplicity, which doesn’t make it an easy story but it is filled with an earnest sense of facts, emotion and heart. There is integrity to the stories about her relationships with men, with her children and with her friends, her battle with alcohol, grief, urbanisation, writing, etc. And at the end there is hope that through sharing this story with us, she has come to know herself better, as have we.
If Australia has a culturally binding story that we can all relate to- it is one of hardship. The convicts, the Irish, European post war refugees, Asian immigrants- Australia was ‘settled’ with an air of desperation, a whip on one hand and a willingness to dig to find a place to live in the other. Almost every family has a story of great struggle and impediment. No stories have them in abundance like the Indigenous community, who had to fight for their very existence against all others, and still find such strength and hope in each layer of adversity and tragedy. And that is what this story gives you in the end through Purcell’s telling of it as she looks you in the eye and offers us redemption.
‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ is an intricate script (I can’t imagine how she learnt it all) that is seemingly simple in its telling but is due to the sophistication of its teller, Purcell. Its moving intimacy is perfectly showcased in the downstairs theatre.
‘Beautiful One Day’ suffers from too much material and too many people trying to force their own agenda and vision into the piece and it gets lost in a prison of its own making. Whilst it had much potential and some great moments, the demands of a capital ‘T’ theatre means the venue hurt it more than helped it. It’s ‘crammed full of clever’ but misses the mark as a cohesive piece of theatre.